Saturday, September 22, 2012

Paddling Through the Marsh

Sometimes, if there aren't too many people around, you can see nice birds while walking down the beach near your hotel. Myrtle Beach definitely has too many people, and too few birds, except for the beach pigeons, of course. So we like to go to the marshes and walk down a boardwalk at low tide, watching the birds hunt in the mudflats.

This trip, we went kayaking on the marsh at Murrel's Inlet, with a  guide who was very knowledgable about both kayaking and the wildlife at the marsh. One other couple joined us, and the woman turned out to the the sister of one of Dick's high school classmates! We have always said that Louisville is the biggest little town in the world! The tide was low, but rising, as we paddled off. Before long, I began to develop blisters from fighting the incoming tide, but Paul said I could just put my thumbs on top of the paddle, and no more problems. The water was quite shallow, and in a few minutes Paul, the guide, stepped right out of his kayak into the water. Reaching down, he came up with a huge horseshoe crab female and a smaller one hanging on to her back! That long stinger looking thing on the back is actually used to right herself if she gets upturned. He put her back in the water upside down, and we saw her turn over with little effort.

Several kinds of terns came to check us out, but since we had no food for them, they soared over the inlet in search of their own lunch. This Caspian Tern is recognizable by the large bright red-orange bill. They make a peeping noise, rather than the rough calls of gulls.

I love the Black Skimmers and their truly peculiar looking bills. The bottom half is longer than the top half. Someday I'll get lucky and actually see them skimming the water's surface with these bills.

It's a pleasure just watching them fly in any case.

We paddled out to the jetty, and dragged our boats up onto the sandbar so they wouldn't float away as the tide came in. The jetty is made of large hunks of granite, and paved with asphalt, which makes it easy to walk on. It can only be reached by boat or by walking over a mile down the beach at Huntington Beach State Park. We saw dolphins there last week, and sure enough, a few were lazily swimming in the same place, ignoring the school of menhaden.

On the way back, Paul spotted a Black Bellied Plover that still had its black belly, the first I've ever seen with this plummage. They are much easier to identify in this state, because otherwise you have to look for their black armpits when they fly.

The trip back to our cars was pretty easy since we were going with the current this time, and the water was much higher. As we approached the parking lot, I thought it must be an optical illusion that made my car look like it was surrounded by water. The closer we got, though, the more I saw that my car really was surrounded by the high tide! Luckily, hard packed shells served as pavement, and with Paul's directions, I back out of the water and got back on the road. Those guys with pickup trucks wouldn't have thought twice about it, but my Prius rides pretty low to the ground, or the water in this instance!

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Raptors in Flight


You know how much I love raptors of all sorts. We have been watching the Osprey migration along the beach all week. Today we drove almost two hours to the Charleston area to visit The Center for Birds of Prey.

As a professional raptor volunteer, I was first interested in the construction of their enclosures, and was very impressed. They are all sturdily built, with wire sides to allow in cooling breezes, and a good sized covered area in each for protection from rain. The tour guide explained that the center had 120 resident birds, both local and foreign, and take care of about 500 in rehabilitation each year! Wow!  I just about choked at those numbers.  They have paid staff, plus volunteers, and obviously, a well-heeled list of donors! Visitors are welcome three days a week for the tour and a free flight program.
We watched eight different birds, such as this beautiful Lanner Falcon from the Mediterranean who was a little reluctant in the morning program, but made up for it by flying for the lure in the afternoon program.
This African Yellow Billed Kite also performed twice today. The Kite is larger than our Mississippi Kites, but they will catch prey from the tree tops to feed their young. In fact, the trainer threw a bit of meat in the air for the bird to catch and eat on the wing. Then he put another bit of meat on a fingertip and held it up for the kite to snatch. You can see him eating his treat in the air. Oh, would I LOVE to work with raptors like this!
The imprinted Barred Owl flew, then begged to be fed as a young chick would...  
...but I knew RRoKI's Eo would love this video of his cousin flying for the visitors, and impressing them as they should always be!

Monday, September 17, 2012

Birding by GPS

Royal Tern
I remember going on vacations before the GPS. We got a Trip-Tick from AAA, and read the maps from the top of the page to the bottom, no matter what direction we actually drove. Or we used those huge fold up maps that never folded back as smoothly as they were before we opened them. And they never had enough detail to guide you through a city without looking for the inset on the other side altogether. ACK! What frustration!

Brown-headed Nuthatch
God bless the GPS!  Today we actually went birding, guided by the North Carolina Birding Trail Guide. Many states publish books directing birders to various birding hotspots within the state. Studies show that birders spend lots of money traveling just to see someone else's birds. We like the guides for Florida and Texas, but Alabama's is pretty complicated. The Alabama book leads you from one point to another, but if you want to jump over one to reach the next, you still have to follow the map and figure out how to reach point C from point A. Of course, many birding spots are out in the middle of nowhere, and words fail to lead you to the destination when there aren't any street signs to be seen in the first place.

Pine savanna after controlled burn
Once we figured out which section in the North Carolina book actually applied to the southeastern coast, there were many opportunities to choose from. Each page showed a small map, had written directions and enticed us with the birds we might find there. Most importantly, they had the latitude and longitude for each site. Our first stop was the Green Swamp Preserve, owned by the Nature Conservancy, and located on "NC211, 5.7 miles north of Supply, NC."  Well, that certainly is clear enough for an out-of-towner...NOT!

Pine Warbler
We discovered that you don't have to know a street address for the GPS (which we fondly call Gabby). The latitude and longitude coordinates can go into it, and she then gives driving directions. Today, Gabby even warned us that we were going "off road" when we reached the barely marked turn off to the Conservancy property. This site is known for its longleaf pine savannas, and we walked for a mile or so, looking for the Red-Cockaded Woodpeckers which can be found there. Unfortunately, the Nature Conservancy didn't mark the woodpecker trees as Florida Fish and Game people did, so we didn't see any woodpecker. We did find some terrific Brown-headed Nuthatches and Pine Warblers, as advertised. The Conservancy had made controlled burns on the savanna, and we walked through one which was fairly recent, into another area where the grass was thriving, and another full of brush and needing a burn before long.

Ruddy Turnstone
 Delighted by our success, we asked Gabby to take us to the Southport Riverwalk where we might see White Ibis, Glossy Ibis, Seaside Sparrows or Painted Buntings at the salt marsh, maritime forest and shrub or beach. Sounds wonderful, doesn't it? Along the way we passed a small country general store, which advertised "Worms and Coffee." Something for everyone!

Apparently, this description was written by someone from the Chamber of Commerce who isn't really a birder. The "boardwalk" was no longer than 20 yards along the side of the Cape Fear River in the town of Southport, NC. A few juvenile gulls and some Ruddy Turnstones sat on the sea wall, scolded by huge Grackles. We saw no salt marsh or maritime forest at all, while the "beach" was 5 feet wide at low tide. Yes, we are such good birders, we timed our marsh birding for the low tide of the day!

Mudflats at low tide
All right, let's give it one more try. Sunset Beach Island is a barrier island, with salt marsh, maritime shrubs, beach and dunes. Sounds good, and it's now low tide. Crossing the causeway, we saw miles of marsh. Yeah, this is going to be good! But like many barrier islands, there seemed to be more houses than bird habitat, and people don't want you walking through their minuscule yards for a better view of what habitat there is.

For Sale
At one end of the small island, the road stopped at a gate and a sign advertising lots for sale - marked down from $1,100,000 to a mere $869,000, and that's just for the LOT!  Dick was surprised when his law abiding wife said, let's walk down the fence and see if we can get in anyway, since this is the best way to see the marshes. 

Pelicans dancing

Spotting scope in hand, we worked down to the exposed sand and had a wonderful time watching the gulls, terns, pelicans, oyster catchers and black skimmers on the sand bars. It felt like we walked at least a mile, but my 24X zoom lens still couldn't bring the birds in close enough to suit me. I tried using the small camera for some digiscoping, and only got a photo of the inside of the scope!

Undeveloped Dunes
I always get irritated when people spend big wads of money to build houses on the sand. Houses that will eventually get flooded or blown away. My insurance rates reflect the losses all the insurance companies pay for people with no sense and no respect for nature. Don't get me started on federal flood insurance for these idiots! But the GPS - now that's a terrific tool for birding!

Friday, September 14, 2012

It's a Jungle Out There

Friday morning dawned beautiful, as it as all week here at Myrtle Beach. On vacation we watch the Weather Channel faithfully every morning as we plan the day's adventures. I sent this photo to Abrams and Bettes at the Weather Channel, and they showed MY PHOTO at 8:20 am!! The studio crew ooohed and aaahed on the air, and Mike Bettes praised it with "Score!" (I think they liked all the clouds.) Thousands of people who are absolute strangers heard "Kathy Dennis" on national TV! WHOO-HOO!

We love the National Wildlife Refuge system, and always look for one nearby when we go on vacation. Waccamaw NWR isn't too far from Myrtle Beach, so we put the address in the GPS and headed down the road. When Gabby (our GPS) said we had arrived, we knew we hadn't because we were still in the middle of Georgetown, SC. Luckily, a guy at a small gas station knew what we were talking about and told us to drive another 17 miles down the road. We discovered that we left out one digit in the street address, so it wasn't Gabby's fault. The visitor's center was outstanding but there weren't many trails. Located in portions of Horry, Georgetown, and Marion Counties, Waccamaw NWR's acquisition boundary spans over 55,000 acres and includes large sections of the Waccamaw & Great Pee Dee rivers and a small section of the Little Pee Dee River. A volunteer at the center directed us to a recreation area at the other end, closer to our starting point, so off we drove again.

The trail went off into the swamps, and as we walked I kept remembering all the alligators we saw in SW Florida. That time we were riding in a car, however, not walking down a path in the middle of no where.  I lookied around anxiously. Are you supposed to run from a 'gator or stand still, I asked, knowing that if it were important to make that decision, it would be too late. How would we describe our location to 911? ACK!

Then I gasped, and stopped before stepping on this slender brown stick, that turned out to be a snake about 15 inches long, not a stick. "What a cute little hognose," I said, zooming in and out, snapping the camera shutter. "See his little upturned nose?"

Well, after we got back, and I started to go through the photos, I noticed that his head had a triangular look to it. This isn't good.

"Dick, do venomous snakes have vertical pupils?" He agreed that they do. OH MY GOD! Look at this closeup of his face!  See the pit between his eye and nose? A pit viper!  This is a venomous snake after all!!!

Google found a website from the Florida Museum of Natural History with a great comparison of cottonmouths and copperheads, which bear a close resemblance to each other. Copperhead: The dark bands on the side have no dark spots in them. Cottonmouth: The dark bands on the side have dark spots in them. See the dark spots on this guy's side? It's definitely a cottonmouth.

Although he raised his head a little, he didn't actually open his mouth, or we might have known earlier.

Being polite to nature, we stepped aside when he started to move, and watched him slide into the leaves beside the trail, where he became much harder to see. Since ignorance is bliss, we strolled on down the trail.

A little farther, we noticed a large red and black ant, busily running back and forth, making it hard to take a photo.  An article in South Carolina Wildlife magazine identified this as the red velvet ant.  The red velvet ant isn’t an ant; it’s a wasp. The females do pretty good ant imitations, though. Three-quarters of an inch long and wingless, their black bodies tufted on the thorax and abdomen with dense orange-red hair, they look amazingly like very big ants. But wasps they are, and, like other wasps, they can inflict repeated stings that pack enough wallop to spur their common nickname: cow killer.  Dick tried to steer the ant back into range for a photo by putting his foot in front of its path. Good thing it didn't get really p_ssed with him, or it might have crawled right into his shoe!

Just remember, boys and girls, it's a jungle out there!  And we call ourselves naturalists!

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Low Country Wildlife

Myrtle Beach seems over flowing with gift stores and miniature golf, hotels and condos, all-you-can-eat buffets and Ripley's Whatever. At first sight, it's not quite the place two nature lovers would choose for vacation.

But a diligent search finds two nice state parks, and the 9,000 acres of Brookgreen Gardens, just a few miles down the road. In 1931, Archer and Anna Hyatt Huntington, purchased three old rice plantations to found Brookgreen Gardens, a non-profit garden museum, to preserve the native flora and fauna and display objects of art within that natural setting. Anna suffered from tuberculosis and needed a warmer winter climate and a place to display the sculptures she created. Today, Brookgreen Gardens is a National Historic Landmark with the most significant collection of figurative sculpture in an outdoor setting by American artists in the world and has the only zoo accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums on the coast of the Carolinas.

We enjoy visiting butterfly houses, but usually they are filled with exotic tropical butterflies. They are pretty, but we are unlikely to ever see them again. Brookgreen's butterfly house features butterflies from the southeastern US. It was great fun to see many butterflies we already knew, such as monarchs, buckeyes and mourning cloaks. We had to check the book to identify the green malachites and  and marigold-orange julias.

As we exited the house, they checked to make sure no hitch-hikers were escaping by clinging to our clothes. But another visitor asked if some of the local butterflies invaded the enclosure, and the guide said yes! They have to be careful that the local sulphurs and gulf fritillaries don't come in and bring some disease to the hot house raised butterflies on display.

Brookgreen also has a zoo of local wildlife such as this red fox, which kindly slept in full sight at the bottom of a tree in its enclosure (which smells like skunk).

The sign for the grey fox said it climbs trees, and sure enough, there it was slung over a tree branch sound asleep in the shade!  Doesn't look too comfortable, does it?

As in all good zoos, signs explained other low country animals, such as turkeys, deer and diamond backed terrapin. As we read about the grey fox squirrel, sure enough, one walked right up the sidewalk, as if on cue!  This little guy had several sore spots and didn't seem to be in very good health though.

Before European settlers arrived, the low country was all cypress swamps cleared by slaves and filled in for rice plantations. As part of Brookgreen's mission to restore the natural setting, they have netted over a swampy area as an aviary, filled with Black-crowned Herons, White Ibis and Cattle Egrets, both adult and juvenile. I'm sure most of the non-birder visitors have never seen any of these species. They sure yelled and ducked when one flew overhead! Non-releasable Bald Eagles, Red Tailed Hawks and Turkey Vultures were in large netted enclosures.

Insects and arachnids are well represented too. Given the swampy conditions, dragonflies abound, especially large eastern pondhawks. The female is bright green while the male is bright blue. It's a good thing I brought the dragonfly book along on this trip.

Google helped identify the 3 inch long spiders we have found everywhere - the banana spider. Anytime we see a spider web which is over 12 inches across, we look for these huge spiders! We pointed one out to the next couple along the trail and they ran away as fast as they could. We just couldn't understand why!

Monday, September 10, 2012

Pelicans and Wood Storks ... At Last!

What a wonderful day! We went on a dolphin watch cruise this morning in a Zodiac boat. A talkative Fish Crow sat in the rigging of another boat, muttering to itself as we waited to board. As the captain sped over the waves, we went airborne for a while before slamming into the trough with a BANG! Dick was hanging on to the rope as he sat on the inflated side of the Zodiac, and he's a little sore this evening.

After cruising for over an hour, we finally located a school of menhaden fish swimming in a ball, and the dolphins came in for the kill.

And the Pelicans arrived to share the bounty! I got better photos of the birds than the dolphins, and I'm sure everyone else wondered why I wasn't more focused on the water.

When it's important, the Pelicans know to show up. Otherwise, they must have someplace else to go. The folks at the dock said they are always there when fish come in with the boats. I am so much relieved to find them at last.

As we went up and down the shore, we saw only one stretch of green along the beach. No matter how long and hard you looked, there were only houses and high rises from horizon to horizon, except for Huntington Beach State Park. Along with the smaller Myrtle Beach State Park, I would bet that they are the only undeveloped beach front in the entire state of South Carolina.

When we returned to shore, we visited Huntington Beach and could have stayed forever. The boardwalks went out into the marsh, and just as the tide was turning we saw wonderful egrets, herons, plovers and sandpipers on the mudflats from closeup. I could identify the Semi-Palmated Plover (on the right here), but had to check the book for this White-rumped Sandpiper.

You can even see the leg band on this Great Egret.

But the real thrill was seeing a large group (at least 60 - 70) of Wood Storks, a federally endangered species!  One has been at the Anchorage Trail in Louisville this summer, and everyone has so excited. They don't belong in Kentucky, of course. I've seen them once in a while in Florida, but only in small numbers. Their flight profile is very distinctive, and the marsh at Huntington Beach was full of them, right next to the road.

Occasionally, a little bill clacking argument started...

The adults were feeding in the shallows using a method known as "grope feeding." They probe around on the bottom with open mouths, and when their sensitive beaks locate something edible, they snap it up, even this large blue crab!

Ornithologists waffle back and forth about whether Turkey Vultures are truly raptors or not. Sometimes, they decide the vultures are really part of the stork family. When you see the bald heads of these Wood Storks you can understand their confusion. Why would a bird that feeds in shallow water need to have a bald head? Could storks and vultures share a common ancestor waaay back that was a scavenger?